It’s almost a sick joke. On the morning after Valentine’s Day, the second-busiest restaurant day of the year, chefs all over the country are hauling themselves out of bed early to find out: Did I make it onto this year’s James Beard Foundation list of Restaurant and Chef Award semifinalists?
For chef Lauren Macellaro, 35, of the Reading Room in St. Petersburg and restaurateur Richard Gonzmart, 64, the fourth-generation owner of the Columbia Restaurant Group, a whole lot of love arrived.
This is the first nod by the Beard Foundation in the "Best Chef, South" category for Macellaro, who with partner Jessika Palombo and owners Kevin Lane and Kevin Damphouse opened the Reading Room about a year ago. For Gonzmart, this is the third time the foundation has honored him for his long career and lineup of successful restaurants.
These two Tampa Bay notables will advance to the next round of what has become known as the Academy Awards of food, the highest honor bestowed in the food industry.
Gonzmart’s great-grandfather started the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa’s historic Ybor City in 1905. Still family-owned, it is now the oldest restaurant in Florida. There are seven Columbia restaurants in Florida and six other Florida restaurants of Gonzmart family brands, including Ulele and Goody Goody Burgers. Just weeks ago, Gonzmart was inducted into the Distinguished Restaurants of North America, or DiRoNA, Hall of Fame.
For both of our local semifinalists, the experience is a little surreal.
"We were looking at the semifinalist list, just to check and see how our friends had done," Macellaro said Thursday "I don’t know, my heart started beating fast. This is not a thing I think about. When I think about the chefs I admire … this is just not in the brain."
Even as a third-timer, Gonzmart echoed her thoughts.
"I just honestly believe I’m dreaming, this isn’t real life," he said. "When I think about where we came from 20 years ago and where we’re heading — Tampa Bay has so many young up-and-coming, thriving chefs and restaurateurs. As a pioneer, we’re proud to be carrying the flag for them."
What will Gonzmart do to celebrate?
"I’ll give my wife of 45 years a hug and pop a bottle."
Macellaro spent the morning trying to change the desserts, with a larger menu change scheduled. (The Tampa Bay Times named the Reading Room the region’s No. 2 restaurant in the annual Top 50 Restaurants story a couple weeks ago, so it has been busy.)
"It’s not in my schedule to celebrate."
Palombo thought otherwise.
"I’m so proud; no one deserves this more than her. We need to celebrate these milestones. We’re going to Cirque du Soleil Tuesday, so maybe then."
Last year’s semifinalists included Chris Ponte of Cafe Ponte and Ferrell Alvarez of Rooster & the Till. In previous years, Greg Baker of the Refinery and Fodder & Shine and Chad Johnson of Haven and the Epicurean Hotel received a number of semifinalist nominations.
Tampa Bay has not yet had a winner for Best Chef. In 2016, Tampa’s Bern’s Steak House was named the national winner in the Outstanding Wine Program category. The only other win ever for our area was when Bern’s Steak House sommelier Derrick Pagan won for wine service in 1992.
The South category includes contenders from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Puerto Rico. Although the "Best Chef, South" category was again dominated by New Orleans restaurants this year, a number of other Floridians got a nod: Lindsay Autry, the Regional Kitchen & Public House, West Palm Beach; Bill Briand, Fisher’s Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina, Orange Beach; Clay Conley, Buccan, Palm Beach; Brad Kilgore, Alter, Miami; and Niven Patel, Ghee Indian Kitchen, Miami.
The semifinalists were chosen from 20,000 entries across the country. The judging panel, of which I am a member, is made up of 600 food industry professionals from around the country, including writers, critics, past winners and more. The same panel of judges selects the winners from those finalists.
Finalists will be announced March 15, and the winners are announced May 7 at the annual gala, this year held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. During the event, which is open to the public, awards for the Restaurant and Chef and Restaurant Design categories will be handed out, along with special achievement awards Humanitarian of the Year, Lifetime Achievement, Design Icon, Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, and America’s Classics. A gala reception, featuring acclaimed chefs and beverage professionals from across the country, will immediately follow. Media awards this year will be announced on April 27 at Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers in New York City.
For the full list of semifinalists, visit jamesbeard.org/awards.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.